Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Iran: Cracks in Regime Facade

Tehran leadership remarks and Iranian media treatment suggest severe cracks in the regime's facade as pressure from below continues in reaction to electoral results.

Looking very professional in his picture on Iran’s English-language PressTV news agency, Majlis (parliament) speaker Ali Larijani is holding up his open hand in a gesture that (at least to an American) appears to be asking everyone to calm down as he announces an investigation into violence accompanying the election protests.

To have the speaker making this announcement sends a couple signals:

  • It takes the initiative away from the executive (while, by the way, the chief executive is conveniently out of the country);

  • Even as it leaves Supreme Leader Khamenei wiggle room, it reminds all of his centrality, because Larijani’s other hat is personal adviser to Khamenei.

Am I reading too much into one article intended for foreign audiences or has Ahmadinejad already been intentionally sidelined?

To consider further, let’s look at the text. The situation: the incumbent wins an overwhelming victory, then the results are instantly announced (someone tell me how Iran could do that so efficiently? Could they send some electoral experts to Florida?) and confirmed as accurate by the Supreme Leader. The winner sneers at the mere idea that an electoral result in Iran could ever be fallacious and then skipped town. Then the Supreme Leader changed his mind and decided that mistakes might have been made after all and would be looked into.

In this situation, your standard dictatorship would have killed protesters (as the Shah did, for example) and harshly condemned the act of protesting. But Larijani referred to “unfortunate incidents” related to students and “reports of clashes with the people” (students in a dictatorship are usually “children” or “led astray by evildoers” but Larijani is sympathetic and demands immediate reports and, while evidently differentiating “students” from “the people” nevertheless implicitly links the two. The history of students in Iran is totally different from that of students in the U.S. I would not quite go so far as to say “student” and “revolutionary” are synonyms in Iran, but the link is there: whether you want revolution or stability, you can’t help seeing revolution in the distance in Iran when students get angry. Right now, Iranian students appear to be angry, and Larijani is not, at least in this report, criticizing them. That suggests to me that some very important elements of Iran’s highly factionalized ruling elite is beginning to feel very uncomfortable with the idea of Ahmadinejad coming out of this smelling like the new ruler of Iran.


PressTV concluded its report on Larijani in an astonishingly deferential way toward…no! not toward Larijani or Khamenei (unmentioned) or Ahmadinejad)…toward the students:

The lawmakers immediately informed Larijani and other officials including the police of the events and demanded the release of the detained students and the arrest and punishment of the perpetrators of the acts of violence.

They also requested that students be compensated for their loss.

Another PressTV report quoted Larijani in an astonishing attack on the Interior Minister:

It is beyond reason that students at a Tehran University dormitory or civilians at a residential complex are being attacked in the wee hours. The Interior Minister (Sadeq Mahsouli) is responsible and should be accountable for the events.

This remark is astonishing because of the public nature of such a fundamental rift in the ruling elite, which one might have expected to resolve things behind closed doors unless the rift has indeed now reached the point where it has become a zero-sum game. That the person making this charge is the personal representative of Khamenei makes it even more astonishing. The implications are even more significant than what Larijani actually is reported to have said: what sense would it make for the Interior Minister to attack students “in the wee hours” unless he were acting on orders from Ahmadinejad? Thus, Larijani seems to be challenging Ahmadinejad despite his reelection. It is hard for me to see how this charge can fail to result in the termination of high-level careers.

A third PressTV report (also today) implicitly equated the most recent demonstrations held by Ahmadinejad supporters and Mousavi-Karroubi supporters…no hint that continuing demonstrations by the losers are in any sense illegitimate. If that is indeed the regime’s new line, it represents an historic shift of attitude toward unapproved demonstrations.

This is a rapidly developing situation, already far different than it was only two days ago. The above analysis also rests solely on reports designed for foreigners and so may merely indicate what the regime wants the world to think. Nevertheless, the implications are at the very least highly intriguing.

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